Buena Regional High School student-athlete Andrew Johnson was filmed having his hair chopped off by a trainer on the sidelines of a wrestling match Dec. 19 after being told his hair contravened regulations. The footage sparked outrage online, with many accusing the referee of racism.
“As this matter is further investigated, the family wants to be clear that they are supportive of Andrew’s coaches and the team’s athletic trainer,” Dominic A. Speziali, an attorney for the Johnson family, said in a statement Monday. “The blame here rests primarily with the referee and those that permitted him to continue in that role despite clear evidence of what should be a disqualifying race-related transgression.”
The referee, Alan Maloney, is now facing a civil rights investigation. Leland Moore, a spokesperson in the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, told BuzzFeed News on Monday the office’s Division on Civil Rights launched an investigation into the “potential bias incident.”
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association has also said the referee, who was investigated for using the n-word in 2016, will not work while the matter is “thoroughly reviewed.”
Speziali said the referee had been late to a weigh-in in which he was supposed to inspect wrestlers for any code violations. The attorney said the referee failed to note any infractions in Johnson’s hair or hair covering until the teen came to the mat to begin his match. Speziali said the ref told the teen his hair “wasn’t in its natural state” and described Johnson’s dreadlocks as “braids.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations, which sets the rules for wrestling matches, says any hair coverings “must fit snug against the wrestler’s body.”
“Andrew was visibly shaken after he and his coaches made every effort to satisfy the referee short of having his hair cut,” Speziali said. “But, as captured on video, the unyielding referee gave Andrew 90 seconds to either forfeit his match or cut his hair. Under duress but without any influence from the coaching staff or the athletic trainer, Andrew decided to have his hair cut rather than forfeit the match.”
Speziali said the referee supervised and directed the woman trainer who cut Johnson’s hair until he was happy with the length removed.
The teen ultimately went on to win the bout, helping lead his high school team to victory, but appeared visibly upset.
The American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey has said the incident was “not about hair” but “about race.”
“How many different ways will people try to exclude Black people from public life without having to declare their bigotry?” the ACLU chapter tweeted Friday.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has also said he was “deeply disturbed” by the incident.
“No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity & playing sports,” he tweeted.
Johnson’s parents, Charles and Rosa, said they have been overwhelmed by the support he has received.
“Wrestling has taught Andrew to be resilient in the face of adversity. As we move forward, we are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community,” they said in a statement shared by Speziali. “We will do all that we can to make sure that no student-athlete is forced to endure what Andrew experienced.”